Archive for April, 2011

>Accurate butchery – a footnote

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I’ve learnt an even rougher version of accuracy. We were putting in the windows, and the plate for one of them needed to be lower for the window to sit at the right height.

Bill the builder set the Makita to the inevitable 10 mm depth and did his usual multiple cross-cut intervals along the 2 metre plate.

“You wouldn’t chip that out for me, would you? Have you got a little tomahawk?”

Yes, I’ve got a tomahawk, but I’ve never conceived of it as a carpentry tool. “It’ll be faster,” Bill said. So there I was, chipping out the waste with vehemence. “There’s another lesson for me,” I said to Bill.

“You’ve heard of an adze, haven’t you?” he said.

Yeah, I’ve heard of an adze, in fantasy novels or some 19th century story like Robbery Under Arms. Still, whatever works most efficiently.

Bill did a bit of final cleaning up along the plate, then took my tomahawk home and sharpened it for me. It’s not a total Makita world, not just yet.

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>Once upon a time, kids could do really stupid things

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I was standing with eyes down, hanging onto a steel beam which Bill the builder was welding; making sure to avoid looking at the glare from the arc welder. A big drop of welding rod fell to the ground in front of me and spattered a bright shower of sparks upwards in a blossom of reddy-gold.

It reminded me instantly of fireworks. Not of the exotic stage managed extravaganza of NYE (as we are apparently now supposed to call it) but of the chook pen in our old family home, and a little “flower pot” that dad was lighting beside the bonfire on Empire Day.

Yep, when we still had vestiges of the pink bits on the globe, and grown-ups did a mild bit of forelock tugging, and kids sang “Hurrah for the red, white and blue” while we waved dolly pegs with appropriately coloured crepe paper strips wrapped around them held by rubber bands. When we stood up and bawled out “God save our gracious Queen.”

And fireworks and big blazing bonfires that dads would spend weeks building before the 24th of May each year.

The Empire Day flashback didn’t last long though, just like the day itself as imperial glory finally faded. It pointed me to the real fun about fireworks – Empire Day’s successor, Cracker Night (nominally the Queen’s Birthday in June), which became symbolic for me of all the stupid things boys like us could possibly manage to do with fireworks.

It’s the baby-boomer blokes’ lament, tinged with guilty recognition: our grandchildren will never be allowed to have the fun and the mayhem of doing dangerous childhood things.

Like these:

  • Putting penny bungers (shaped like baby sticks of dynamite) under jam tins and seeing how high the bunger could blow the jam tin into the air
  • Then when that excitement paled, upping the stakes to put tuppeny bungers (even more wickedly powerful explosives) under kerosene tins for even more chaotic results
  • Realising that penny bungers fitted quite neatly down a bit of water pipe, which you could bend in dad’s vice into yes, the shape of a gun; then lighting the bunger, dropping it down the pipe, following it with a marble, and knowing you have created a potentially lethal weapon
  • Using roman candles like semi-automatic rifles in firefights running around the chook pen battleground
  • Going progressively up the scale to see how big an explosive you could hold in your fingers while it went off: the little tom thumbs no worries; the standard sized cracker, yep, okay; the penny bunger? No, we didn’t get quite that stupid, or maybe my best mate and worst influence Greg Murphy may have once.

1966, where are you? Oh for long backyards, far enough from the house where mothers couldn’t see the potential carnage going on. I know, I know, kids lost fingers, even eyes; the good burghers of Sans Souci lost letter boxes and the odd cat lost its life, when the really mean kids took up the bunger thing.

Now instead, it’s like this:

  • Fireworks are inevitably banned from personal use, except for some lame ones you buy in Fyshwick and smuggle across the border.
  • It costs me $100, and a day’s worth of lectures and tests on OH&S, before I can even think of being an owner-builder.
  • One metre high step ladders are banned from building sites because you can’t have 3 points of contact while standing on them.
  • No council could ever again put in their parks one of those well-balanced and well-oiled twirly merry-go-rounds that you could get spinning really fast and then hang out and feel the centrifugal force and be spun off, and only lose a little bit of skin from knees and elbows.

I blame the lawyers. My former colleagues were very successful in eliminating bad luck, misadventure and just plain shit-happens from our lives, and turning it instead into someone’s fault.

With that someone, of course, and their public liability insurers, having in the interests of truth and justice to be well and truly sued. And the nanny-state stepping in to protect us accordingly in line with the precedents set.

But I’m glad, I think, at least deep down, that my grandchildren will never be able to make bunger guns.

>“You are my teacher” – five lessons from being given a whacking

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Sometimes people touch our lives, significantly, harshly or tangentially, as if blown towards us by one of the Buddhist worldly winds of pain, loss, shame or blame. I just had one of those touches, someone a bit lost and struggling , needing to find a focus of blame to help ease their suffering; or just needing to lash out to deflect some fleeting pain; I dunno which. Anyway, I got the whacking, and it was nicely pointed at one of my potential hotspots.

There’s a temptation inevitably to respond in kind. I suppose whatever wisdom I may have gathered from various hard lessons learned in life tells me that when that temptation arises, saying “Stop!” to myself before finally going through with a response can save me some pain, and give that other person a shot at minimising their pain.

That latest salvo aimed at me landed, serendipitously, at a time when I had floated through quite a peaceful meditation, and a couple of days after having spent some life-affirming time with my consulting colleagues talking about respective personal journeys.

I was standing at the sink, washing dishes, just reflecting on that salvo, with a thought like, “Oh no, not again,” when another thought followed (or was sent): “You are my great teacher,” you who had made the carefully aimed attack. I gradually experienced the lessons I was being taught by my teacher:

Patience – it may be a while, if ever, before people’s attitudes might change or their anger fade. That’s okay, they are usually each more than worth me letting any such prospect of change have the space to blossom.

Tolerance – whatever is motivating the attack maybe has a fair basis in fact behind it, and that point of view is one for which I ought to show at least a bit of respect.

Humbleness – I have plenty of unworthy thoughts myself, and plenty of temptation to air them (to which I am sometimes known to succumb). I can easily marshal a biting return salvo which perhaps if I were a little more enlightened myself would not even form in my mind.

Restraint – there was an even chance, in this instance, that snapping back would be pointless and more likely counter-productive. A response would most likely fuel the suffering that prompted the attack. I could minimise that prospect by restraining the urge to say a bunch of things which would only feel good for a very short time.

Compassion – Jack Kornfield says “Compassion is when love meets pain.” Its essence for me is a recognition that we are all in this shit-happens world together. I know what is behind some of the pain this person is feeling. Meeting that pain with love, at least vicariously, would seem to be the least I could do.

I have a different perspective on this person now, from assailant to valued teacher. And God knows I can use the lessons. There are other potential teachers that I should be looking out for and recognising, no doubt about that. And they’re not all shooting at me.

>Accurate butchery – when perfection doesn’t really matter

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My lesson for the week is: “If it’s not going to show, it doesn’t have to look great, so don’t waste time trying to be perfect.”

I reached the next stage of my builder’s apprenticeship. Bill the builder deigned to let me use real tools, that is, tools beside a mattock and a shovel.

We have been building the frames. We went down to see eight-fingered Dan (his brother accidentally cut off 2 of his fingers with an axe when Dan was 6) and bought second hand oregon.

The used wood looks a bit scruffy but it’s not going to bend or warp any further, being well and truly seasoned by who knows how many decades standing in someone else’s house.

We got to the stage of rebating the top and bottom plates where the wall studs go in. You set the power saw to a depth of 10mm, then do a series of lateral cuts close together so you can chisel out the excess more easily.

My job was the chiselling. I know about chiselling. You always go with the grain of the wood; if you go across the grain, you can splinter the wood.

I started chiselling my stud carefully with the grain, then Bill the builder started on his stud. He had done 3 while I was neatly finishing my first one.

“I didn’t think you could go across the grain,” I said. Bill was belting the chisel across the grain with gusto.

“Framing is butchery,” he said, “accurate butchery anyway. It doesn’t have to look great – it’s all going to be covered up inside the walls anyway.”

So with licence like that I got into the across-the-grain act and increased my speed of rebating two-fold. When we got to the deeper rebates for the window and door lintels, it wasn’t even chiselling; you just whacked the bigger wafers sideways with your hammer and tidied up a bit afterwards.

The Buddhists say: “To be enlightened is to be without anxiety about the non-perfection of the world.” There’s a place for rough and ready, if you think about when.

My carefully chiselled first rebate would work no better for its intended purpose than Bill’s rough-hewn ones, and doing it my way was slowing down the process considerably. It would have looked very neat and tidy, but it will be encased by a brick wall on one side of it and a gyprock wall on the other.

When else do I waste time and energy in the pursuit on pointless perfection?

  • Fluffing around with PowerPoint slides – one of the great time-and-effort wasters in all creation
  • Insisting that each garment I hang on the line has two matching colour pegs
  • Cutting carrots into julienne strips before throwing them into the slow cooker.

I guess all those things are okay in their own right, as long as they aren’t impeding some more pressing process. I’ll be keeping an eye out for just the right time to employ some more “accurate butchery”.

(Since writing this, I pegged some washing out, not caring what the peg colours were, and experienced a small sense of liberation.)



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